Eschatology – Part 23

Eschatology – Part 23

July 1997

Dear Co-laborer,

Eschatology, part 23


The Hindu teaching that history is cyclical, and with it the transmigration of the soul, finds its way into Greek philosophy and religion. John’s Revelation cuts across this with the assertion that history is linear, has a purpose, and is moving to a definite end at which time there will be a material re-creation followed by judgment. This biblical distinctive began to fade as the church jettisoned chiliasm and sought to accommodate Greek thought.

There evolved a variety of figurative interpretations of Revelation 6-20 and the return of Christ. For example, we looked at Jerome’s and Eusebius’ interpretation of end times. Amillennialism, currently constituted, was the interpretation of Tyconius who didn’t use his views as a means of arresting the church’s slide toward a Hindu world view. Augustine, sensing the danger, borrowed Tyconius’ interpretation of Revelation, and it became the official view of the Latin or western church. In this issue, we will look more closely at Augustine, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity.


Book XX of Augustine’s The City of God, deals, in part with John’s Revelation. Chapter 6 deals with the two resurrections of Revelation 20, chapter 7 with the thousand years, and chapter 8 with the binding of Satan.

After quoting Rev. 20:1-6, Augustine attacks millenarianism, quoting, I believe, the Epistle of Barnabas. Barnabas says the seven day creation coincides with the unfolding of history; the seventh day of rest is the millennium. Referring to this, Augustine says, “One might put up with such an interpretation if it included belief in some spiritual delights accruing to the saints from the Lord’s company during that Sabbath rest. In fact, I myself at one time accepted such an opinion. But when these interpreters say that the rising saints are to spend their time in limitless gormandizing with such heaps of food and drink as not only go beyond all sense of decent restraint, but go utterly beyond belief, then such an interpretation becomes wholly unacceptable save to the carnal-minded.”[1]

As in II Peter 3:8, “One days with the Lord is as a thousand years,” so in Rev 20 the thousand years cannot be taken literally. It is “the span between Christ’s first and second coming.” Satan is bound and cast into the abyss in the same sense as Tyconius said, the abyss is the hearts of the unregenerate. When Satan is unbound, “the church will not be on earth…” Augustine also follows Tyconius in arguing that the first resurrection of Rev. 20:4-6 is interpreted figuratively and refers to conversion; the second resurrection is literal, referring to the return of Christ. Babylon of Rev. 17-18 is the godless city as opposed to the City of God.

The three and a half year tribulation (e.g., Rev. 13:5) is evidently literal. It is a time of persecution in which the saints continue to reign with Christ. “We conclude, then, that the reign of Christ with His saints will be longer than the Devil’s bonds and imprisonment, for, even when he is released, they will continue to reign with their King, the Son of God. for these three and a half years.”[2]


Men have always longed for the security that a united world would bring. But the unity of a political, temporal society is impossible without a universal religious society. History does not study solely material facts and institutions; its main objective is the study of the human mind. According to Augustine, it is religion that dominates the man, his family and the ancient city. “Religion did not say to a man, showing him another man: That is your brother. It said to him: That is a stranger; he cannot participate in the religious acts of our hearth; he cannot approach your family’s tomb; he has other gods than yours, and cannot unite with you in a common prayer…he is your enemy…The gods common to several families alone made possible the birth of the city. Society developed only so fast as religion enlarged its sphere.”[3]

Stoic philosophy, which profoundly influenced fourth century Christianity, thought the world to be one. Man is part of an infinitely vaster order than his own particular political society. As a citizen of the universe, he is a citizen of the highest state, of which all other states are but households. This idea of a universal society of men first appeared in the natural religion of Hinduism; man is meant to be one with the universe, and the quest of religion is to free man from the material world and make him one with the universe.

Thus a world conqueror would still not end with a common society. Only a society in which men were one in God, would this commonality truly exist. It was in the Roman Empire, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, there appeared “the gentle Founder of a truly universal society.” That He came to the Jews was a perfect expression of a completely religious nationalism. He who created the universe, created the people. Why should He make a covenant with only one of them? It is a universal religion. This was always the intent of God, shown in the Old Testament prophets. Established as the light of the nations so salvation might reach the world, Israel, like Jonah, rebelled against the mission entrusted to it by God. Jesus came, in part, to teach Israel the world was the objective of a loving God.

The church alone understood this mission of God, and it is not surprising that Christianity was trans-national. The believer has a dual citizenship. In the world but not of the world, his first allegiance is to God. This put the church in conflict with Rome until the state was Christianized. Thereafter, when the subjects betrayed God, they betrayed the state. The unity of the empire was bound up with the unity of the faith.

It was the same people in both Testaments of the Bible, but now they are spread out over the world. The church and Israel are one, and are united with the holy emperor, a union that would bring peace and prosperity in this world while waiting for the glory of the next. Since the state was Christian, the church protected the state. “Only baptize this Empire, and it could become the center of a Christian universal society, so that, by the very fact of being a Christian, a man could enjoy membership in that society.”

Augustine wrote The City of God over the course of several years (413-26), in response to the fall of Rome to Alaric in 410. The Roman Empire was beginning to crumble at the precise moment when Christians thought of making full use of it. The empire fell, but the church did not. This began a polemic between Christians and pagans over who was responsible: The Christian renouncement of the world turned citizens away from service to the state. Not only so, but the rise of Rome was bound with the worship of her gods. The Christian religion ascended at the exact time the empire began her decline. The correlation was too obvious to miss. How could people who believe Matt. 6:24-34 be expected to protect the state from invaders?

Augustine’s reply was two-fold: First, the pagans preached the same virtues for which Christians were blamed. God does not command Christ’s followers to refrain from protecting the state. The vices of the people rather than the Christian emperor brought ruin upon the empire. Second, Christianity has two goals, to save human society and to build up that society to be holy. Here then are the two cities; the one that is and the one that one day will be. Borrowing from the Stoic philosophy of oneness, the world has as its end the constitution of a holy society. The City of God extends beyond the limits of the world; it includes everything that is, God excepted, and encompasses the work of God.

When Augustine addresses the human city, he has Rome in mind. However, Rome was not a true society, because true justice had never reigned in Rome, and without true justice a society cannot exist. This means that only one city can exist, because it alone observes the laws of true justice. It is the City of God whose Head is Christ. The human city exists only because the City of God exists; there could be no city of injustice if there were no City of true justice. Every society must be defined in relation to the City of God, in the same way that truth defines error.

There may be numerous cities in the world, but only two are of interest to Augustine. When God created, He created through a man. All men are bounded physically by their father Adam. God created in this way to show that He is pleased with unity in diversity. As men are naturally bothers in Adam, they are supernaturally brothers in Christ. So we have two kinds of men, exemplified in Cain and Abel.

Augustine uses “city” in a figurative or mystical sense. Two loves produce two cities; those, following Abel love God and are united in Christ. The others, following Cain love evil. It is Jerusalem and Babylon; Babylon is Babel, the city of confusion. All men are citizens of one or the other city. Human society is not the earthly city and the church is not the City of God. As in the parable of the wheat and tares, there are those identified with Babylon who will one day belong to Jerusalem, and some in Jerusalem are in reality followers of Cain.[4] Nevertheless, the church is the incarnation of the City of God.

The earthly city is not united by an a common truth, whereas the City of God requires acceptance of a single truth encompassed in Scripture. The earthly city has many philosophers with conflicting ideas regarding truth and reality. The City of God has, in Scripture, a group of authors announcing the same message and united in purpose. This is why the city of earth cannot unite behind a single philosopher or system of thought, but the City of God can. Babylon is the city of confusion.

Augustine did not anticipate Marx and the communist state. Marxism is a belated realization of the necessity of unity in achieving a universal society. The communist state is man’s endeavor to create the City of God with the rulership of man, an oxymoron to say the least. Belief in a unified system of truth makes possible heresy. Heretofore, the earthly city never thought in terms of heresy, leaving her citizens to chose for themselves their favorite philosopher. When communism sought to emulate the City of God, it emulated this concept of heresy as well.

For Augustine, the spiritual authority of the City of God intervenes to restrain the temporal liberty of her citizens. When the authority of the church conflicts with the authority of the state, opposition between the two cities results. It was this conflict that Augustine did not anticipate. He saw it from a positive perspective; true peace and fulfillment cannot be found anywhere except in the City of God. The individual who seeks this peace must submit to the authority of the church. When Caesar is converted, the sword of the state is made available to the church.

As faith, which transcends reason, conquers and gives understanding, can not the church, which transcends all nations and races, confer upon them a unity and peace on earth that approximates heaven? Augustine did not bequeath to his successors an ideal of a universal human city united with temporal ends, but in the City of God he did inspired men with the desire to organize the earth into a single society made in the likeness of the heavenly city.[5]


In the City of God Augustine recaptured the absolute significance and eternal value of history in the temporal process. Augustine gave it philosophic analysis and definition, restoring the Christian religion as the child of Judaism rather than Gnostic mysticism.

“Thus the past is the soul’s remembrance, the future is its expectation, and the present is its attention…He compares the time-process with the recitation of a poem which a man knows by heart. Before it is begun the recitation exists only in anticipation; when it is finished it is all in the memory; but while it is in progress, it exists, like time, in three dimensions – ‘the life of this my action is extended into the memory, on account of what I have said, and into expectation, on account of what I am about to say; yet my attention remains present and it is through this that what was future is transposed and becomes past.’”[6]

Augustine abandoned chiliasm, but preserved traditional social realism in his attitude of the church. He found no place for material re-creation, encompassed in Jewish hope and reiterated by Paul in Romans 8 and John in Revelation 20, but he did see history as linear and essential in unfolding the eternal plan of God.

With this we will bring our study of eschatology to a close. In the next issue we will summarize the salient points and how it should touch our lives.

Grateful for His hope,

[1] op.cit., Augustine, City of God, Book XX, chapter 7, paragraph 4.

[2] ibid, Book XXII, chapter 30, paragraphs 11-12.

[3] Deferrare, R.J., editor, The Fathers of the Church, Fathers of the Church, Inc. New York, 1954, Vol 24, Forward in St. Augustine’s City of God by Etienne Gilson, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (Toronto).

[4] Augustine argued that there is no differenc between the conqueror and the robber except the scale of their operations. “What is banditry but a little kingdom?” A pirate is reported to have said to Alexander the Great, “Because I do it, with a little ship, I am called a robber, and you, becuase you do it with a great fleet, are called an emperor.”

[5] op.cit., Forward in St. Augustine’s City of God, Gilson, Etienne.

[6] op.cit., Dawson, St. Augustine and His Age, page 70.